Nov. 8-14, 1918

Nov. 8

Finished my sleeve, got my stuff from Sears, greatly pleased. Had oysters for supper and ate by candle light – some style, heard that Edgar got up today. Owen Pugh and Mildred Mayer died today. It sure is awful. practiced 40 minutes.

Nov. 9

Saturday’s work. Finished a doily, took a bath, went up town, seen Harriet, took my music lesson. started to read “Seventeen” – some crazy. To bed at 9:30.

Nov. 10

A simply grand morning. Everything ridged inch deep with pearl-frost. Took pictures, went up to Sheldons, read, ate popcorn till couldn’t hold another kernel, went out riding with Edgar, Emily and Clarence came, finished “Seventeen”, went to bed at 10.

Nov. 11

“War is over”! New reached here this morning. They rang all three bells in town for about 1 ½ hours, and people shot off guns. I was so excited I didn’t know what to do. Went to Mildred’s funeral at 2. She looked just as natural. Got the mail and got my order from Montgomery. Pictures and art corners! Made the cuffs for my sweater and each cost $1.00 – awful! planned on going up town to the celebration but decided not to. Went to bed at 9.

Nov. 12

Went up town before the stores were open, washed, Flossie came down with the “flu.”

Nov. 13

Ironed, went up town. Finished “The Little Shephard of Kingdom Come”. Edgar came up – brot candy – 1sttime for 2 weeks. Ray Harrington died today. went to bed at 12, pretty late for me.

Nov. 14

Went up town, copied poems, went down to Sheldons to practice for the funeral tomorrow. came home alone, broke the thermometer.


The very first day of this installment, November 8th, is packed full of information. One of the things I love about this journal is its simplicity and restraint. It is actually in its simplicity where the power of Clara’s words reside. 

1918 Montgomery Ward catalog

First, Clara receives an order from Sears. Later, on November 11th, she receives an order from Montgomery Ward. These two mail order companies were in serious competition for customers from rural America. And customers in rural America clamored for the products their catalogs offered.

As an aside, I was surprised to see that in her journal, Clara mentioned looking at “catalogues” (see Oct. 25). Typically, that spelling of the word is considered British English. Americans normally spell it “catalog.” So I did a bit of research, and it turns out that in 1918, “catalogue’ was by far the preferred spelling in the United States. In the 1960s, that spelling began to decline as the popularity of “catalog” increased. It has since  and has accelerated as the spelling most often used. So I will go ahead and use that spelling!

Aaron Montgomery Ward started the world’s first mail-order catalog in Chicago in 1872. He understood that people from the rural parts of the country wanted products available in the city as much as the residents of the city did. They just didn’t have access to those products. His solution was to publish a catalog that sold all types of goods, including home décor, tools, jewelry, and toys.

Page from 1918 Sears Catalog

It wasn’t much later, in 1888, that a watchmaker, Richard Sears, started another mail-order catalog business in Chicago, selling watches and jewelry: Sears Roebuck and Co. It didn’t take long for the catalog to expand to include a wide variety of items: kitchen cabinets, underwear, appliances, toys, tools, and even houses – people could order pretty much anything. And they did. Including Clara.

In 1933, Sears published their first Christmas Wish Book. Over the years, Montgomery Ward also produced a Christmas catalog. I remember these catalogs very well. An important tradition in our house growing up was for my sister and I to pore over those catalogs. I would place a “V” next to all the things I wanted for Christmas. And my sister would write a “J” next to those things she wanted. 

Christmas tape!

I just now realized something! All the gifts we received that were specifically from Santa Claus were labelled with a V or a J. The gifts were wrapped with paper that didn’t match the paper used for gifts from our parents, and with a special colorful Christmas tape. Across the top of each gift, the tape was added in the shape of a V or a J to indicate which Santa gift was for me and which was for my sister.

But I will never forget those nights, sitting by the fireplace, slowly poring over each page, reading the descriptions, and whittling down my choices to something that wouldn’t look too greedy. Surely I’m not the only one who has those memories.

And if you are too young to remember such catalogs, think of them as a precursor to Amazon.com!

Also, on November 8th, Clara enjoyed oysters by candlelight. That really caught my eye! Oysters in South Dakota?

Turns out, oysters were quite popular in South Dakota and many other landlocked states in the early 1900s. Before that, only the wealthy could afford oysters, but a surge in production dropped the prices lower than other meat and the development of cross country trains and new packaging brought oysters to South Dakota. 

A little bit of research reveals many references to people eating oysters on the prairies. Even Laura Ingals Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie, wrote of enjoying oysters on New Year’s in South Dakota in her autobiography Pioneer Girl. 

Elsewhere, they were served at socials and fundraisers and parties. At these events, people enjoyed fresh oysters and oysters from hermetically sealed cans, made into oyster stew, scalloped oysters, or oysters and honey. 

Oysters!

But oysters must have been a special treat for Clara’s family as they ate their oysters by candlelight.

It wasn’t a candlelight dinner with her boyfriend though. For she “heard that he got up today.” Five days ago, Clara mentioned that Edgar had been exposed to the flu. On the fourth, she says Edgar came to pick her up, but there isn’t any other reference to Edgar this day. She doesn’t mention that he had been sick, but it sure sounds like he did fall ill. With influenza? We can only guess. 

Sadly, while Clara ate oysters, two more died from the flu: Owen and Mildred.

Owen Pugh, a farm laborer, was 26 years old. He had been married for three years and the couple had a two-year-old little girl, Arlene, who would not grow up without her father. 

Mildred (far right) and her sisters

Mildred Mayer was only 18 years old. She and her husband Roland Meyer had just celebrated their one-year anniversary. The family had already suffered a tragedy when Mildred’s mother died eight months prior to her marriage. Her two younger sisters lived long lives though, dyinkg at 78 and 81 did survive until 78 and 81.

Clara also reads quite a bit. This week she reads Seventeen: A Tale of Youth and Summer Time and the Baxter Family Especially William, a novel by Booth Tarkington published in1916 that satirizes first love. Tarkington was considered the breatest American author at the time In facy, F. Scott Fitzgerald includes it on his list of the ten best books he has read, as publishing in the Jersey City Evening Journal. He comments that it is “the funniest book I’ve ever read.” Clara’s review? “Some crazy.”

The next day, Clara unleashes the poet inside her. Most of her entries are stark and bare. Simple. This is one of the few entries with vivid description, where the language actually comes alive: “A simply grand morning. Everything ridged inch deep with pearl-frost.”

On this beautiful day, Edger “got up,” and he and Clara went riding. I can only assume this means horseback riding. Family stories indicate that Clara’s father owned 40 horses.

World War I is over, Clara declares, showing uncharacteristic emotion. The townspeople are celebrating, but Clare makes the decision to skip it, perhaps because she spent the afternoon at Mildred’s funeral. We’ll discuss that in a bit. People across the country continued with the celebration of November 11 in 1919 and called it Armistice Day until 1954, when the name of the holiday was changed to Veteran’s Day. 

When I saw this entry, I immediately thought of my own diary when I was 11 years old. When I declared THE WAR ENDED! A couple of notes on my diary entry: 

1. My handwriting was better at 11 than it is today! 

2. I’m so confused about what that means that my dad “took” the stereo. Where did he take it? For as long as I can remember, it was in the living room. 

3. My diary is similar to Clara’s in that is seems to be just a recitation of my day. 

4. Vic?? When did I ever call myself Vic?

But on the same day that the war ended, Clara had to attend a funeral of a young life cut down too soon, not from the war, as so many other thousands of lives were lost, but from the invisible virus sweeping across the country.

One of the saddest parts today about people who catch Covid-19 is that they end up isolated and alone. When someone is hospitalized, family are not allowed to be with them. When the person is intubated, they are alone. When they pass away, no family is at their bedside. And they are buried without benefit of a memorial or a formal celebration of life. And throughout this, those left behind must be terrified and heartbroken that their loved ones suffer alone.

It appears that Clara is attending funerals, and perhaps open casket memorials, as evidenced by the comment “She looked just as natural.”

Nearby, in Rapid City, only funerals in “open air” were allowed. In other cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago, banned funerals and wakes all together. 

Flossie is her younger sister, and would be 15 years old at this time. She lives with them! Ugh.

And Clara is reading again. She finishes “The Little Shephard of Kingdom Come,” a novel by John Fox Jr. published in 1903 about a young orphan boy who lives with a family on a farm in Kentucky. When the family dies from the plague, he is left to fight for the Union in the Civil War and grow up alone. Clara doesn’t offer any clue as to what she thought of the book, but it was very popular and considered “one of the most perceptive tellings of the Civil War experience.” (that quote from Amazon). It was made into a play as well as a 1920 silent movie starring Mary Pickford’s brother Jack and 1961 movie starring Jimmy Rogers, who earned his fame recording over 40 top ten hits in the 50s and 60s.

And unfortunately, another local has died: Ray Harrington. He was 25 years old when he got married only six months prior, on May 21, 1918. It turns out that his new bride was five months pregnant when he died and gave birth to a little boy the following March. Clara practices because she is going to play at his funeral, which will take place on the first day of the next installment.

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